Why Zoom exhausts us - and how to fix it

zoom fatigue May 11, 2021

Three interesting developments to tell you about in the debate about why online meetings are so exhausting.

1 - The CEO of Zoom admits he gets Zoom fatigue. Eric Yuan says he no longer schedules back-to-back meetings. One day last year he had 19 Zoom meetings in a row. “I’m so tired of that,” he said.

2 - Giant bank HSBC is introducing Zoom-free Friday afternoons for all staff. Some companies have gone further, as staff complain about burn-out from nonstop video calls. Citigroup has already brought in Zoom-free Fridays, with chief executive Jane Fraser speaking out against the "blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday”.

3 - Psychology researchers have come up with four reasons why Zoom is so tiring - and what we can do to make it less stressful. The research - from Stanford University in the USA - validates one of the main points we’ve been emphasizing in our Virtual Speaker training program… the loss of body language cues.

The Stanford research was led by Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. The brief was to examine the psychological consequences of spending hours on Zoom and similar online platforms. 

In the first peer-reviewed research into Zoom fatigue, his team has come up with four consequences of long hours of video meetings.

Here are the four problems he identifies, and his suggested remedies.

1 - Continuous close-up eye contact is highly intense

In a face-to-face meeting, people may be looking at the speaker, they may be taking notes, or they may be looking round the room. But on Zoom, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. Even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.

And that’s taxing, says Professor Bailenson. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population. When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

And it’s even more stressful because, by and large, we only see close-ups of participants on a Zoom call. We are not used to, or comfortable with, prolonged close-up encounters with colleagues and strangers. Generally we reserve that sort of face-to-face moment for more intimate encounters.

When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours, is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” says Professor Bailenson.

Remedy - Play around with the settings and try to reduce the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor. You are trying to minimize the size of the faces staring at you. And if you don’t have one already, get an external keyboard so that you can put a little more space between you and the camera.

2 - Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing

It’s weird to be looking at yourself all the time you are talking. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” says Professor Bailenson.

Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”

Remedy - Use the “hide self-view” button, accessible by right-clicking your own image, once you see your face framed properly in the video.

3 - Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility

If we meet someone in person, or speak with them on the phone, we can move around. But on Zoom we inhabit a space that is determined by the angle of view of the camera. We are glued to our seats.

And that reduces our effectiveness, says Professor Bailenson. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively.”

Remedy - Consider using an external camera positioned further away, to give you space to move about. Try an external keyboard to get further away from the screen. Don’t be afraid to doodle in virtual meetings, just as you might in live encounters. And turn your video off periodically during meetings to give yourself a brief nonverbal rest.

4 - The cognitive load is much higher in video chats

This is the point we’ve been emphasizing in our coaching over the last year. I’m really happy to see it validated by the Stanford research.

In regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is natural. Each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive unspoken signals. Without those cues, it’s much more difficult to follow a discussion and process information.

In Professor Bailenson’s view, we’ve taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: “If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

And gestures are more easily misinterpreted in a video meeting. “A sidelong glance to someone during an in-person meeting means something very different than a person on a video chat grid looking off-screen to their child who just walked into their home office.”

Remedy - Give yourself an “audio only” break. Professor Bailenson explains: “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen, so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

Professor Bailenson says he’s not out to vilify Zoom or any other videoconferencing app. He says he appreciates and uses tools like Zoom regularly.

He just wants to encourage changes in the interface to take some of the stress away, and to encourage companies and individuals to think carefully about their use of Zoom.

“Just because you CAN use video doesn’t mean you HAVE to,” he says.